The Island's History

Although gulls and cormorants are now the main inhabitants of Alcatraz, the island is actually named after the large colonies of brown pelicans that resided there when Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala became the first known European to sail through the Golden Gate in 1775. He christened the rock 'La Isla de los Alcatraces' meaning 'Island of the Pelicans'

Fast forward seventy-five years to 1850 and the US President, Millard Fillmore, has ordered that the island be used as a military outpost with a fortress and around 100 cannons installed to protect San Francisco Bay. Due to its location away from the mainland and surrounded by the strong currents of the bay, the island was deemed an ideal location for a prison and by the late 1850s the U.S. Army had begun holding military prisoners at Alcatraz. These prisoners included confederate sympathisers and citizens accused of treason during the American Civil War, as well as 'rebellious' Native Americans who were sent to the prison following land disagreements with the government. During the early 20th century, inmates were forced to build the jailhouse that still stands today, along with a hospital, mess hall and other prison buildings.

Prison Opening

With the U.S. Justice department desperately seeking a site for a federal prison that could house criminals deemed too difficult for other penitentiaries, the Army relinquished control of Alcatraz in 1933 and, following improvements to make the existing complex more secure, the maximum-security facility officially opened on 1st July 1934 under the supervision of warden, James A. Johnston. 

Alcatraz was known as 'the prison system's prison'. There was one guard for every three prisoners and each prisoner had his own cell. It contained not necessarily the most dangerous criminals, but the most disruptive and it was thought that living with only a few privileges - which had to be earned through good behaviour - would make them learn how to follow rules, after which they could be transferred out to other prisons to complete their sentences.

Despite its strict and bleak reputation, some prisoners actually considered the conditions inside Alcatraz to be preferable to other federal jails. The food was much better than in most other prisons and inmates could return for as many helpings as they wanted. This was a conscious plan by the Warden who was aware that poor food was often the cause of prison riots. The prison's one-person cells also appealed to some because it gave them their own space and made them less vulnerable to attack by fellow inmates. Those who behaved had access to monthly movies and a library with 15,000 books and 75 popular magazine subscriptions. In the evenings, inmates would generally read books from the library and time was allocated to practise musical instruments.

Music at Alcatraz

Music was deemed a privilege at Alcatraz, only accessible to those who behaved in an appropriate manner. One of the main instigators in bringing music to Alcatraz was none other than Al Capone, infamous gangster (and apparent keen musician). Capone was among the first prisoners to occupy the new Alcatraz federal prison in August 1934. Unable to bribe the guards into giving him preferential treatment (like he had done in other prisons), he realised that in order to gain privileges such as music, he had to cooperate with prison rules. After racking up time for good behaviour, he convinced the warden to buy music equipment and was permitted to play banjo in the Alcatraz prison band, the 'Rock Islanders' which had a rotating group of musicians including George 'Machine Gun Kelly' Barnes on drums. In a letter to his son, Capone indicated that he got the chance to play both banjo and mandola, and boasted that he could play over 500 songs. He also composed his own tunes including a love song called "Madonna Mia'' which was published posthumously in 2009.

At an auction in 2017, musician Jack White successfully bid on sheet music that had been hand-written by Al Capone during his time in Alcatraz and which contained lyrics thought to have been written by Capone himself. Not completely proficient at reading music, White took the artifact to a recording session hoping that his fellow musicians could decipher it. They were playing the unfamiliar tune on piano when the studio manager walked by and popped her head in wondering why they were playing classical music - she had recognised it as 'Humoresques' by Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák. After doing some research, White found out that the lyrics were actually written by another musician in the 1930s. Capone must have remembered the song and written it down, presumably for his bandmates to learn and perform. Moved by the idea that a violent gangster had a weakness for such 'a gentle, beautiful song', White recorded the song and put it as the closing track on his album, Boarding House Research.

Music Regulations in the prison

In Alcatraz, there were a specific set of regulations that inmates must abide by. Below you can see numbers 46 and 47, which relate to music and radio:


Musical instruments may be purchased if approved by the Associate Warden.

Guitars and other stringed instruments may be played in the cellhouse in a QUIET manner only between the hours of 5:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. No singing or whistling accompaniments will be tolerated.

Any instrument which is played in an unauthorized place, manner, or time will be confiscated and the inmate placed on a disciplinary report.

Wind instruments, drums and pianos will be played in the band or Orchestra Rooms on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays. At no time will you play any wind instrument in the cellhouse.

Permission to play instruments in the Band, Orchestra or bathrooms may be granted by the Associate Warden to inmates in good standing. The Band room is a privilege and permission to play there must be requested from the Associate Warden.

A limited number of inmates may be allowed to take musical instruments to and from the recreation yard. Permission must first be obtained from the Associate Warden.

No inmate on "idle" status or on "report" or restricted will be allowed to use the Band Room, Orchestra Room or to take instruments to the yard.

An inmate whose musical privileges have been restricted or revoked shall be removed from all musical lists, and his instrument stored in "A" Block until otherwise authorized by the Associate Warden.

No inmate is allowed to give, sell, trade, exchange, gamble, loan or otherwise dispose of his personal or institutional instrument or to receive such from another inmate.

Institutional instruments may be loaned to inmates in good standing upon the approval of the Associate Warden.

All instruments will be listed on personal property cards. Institutional instruments shall be listed as "On Loan" from the institution, together with the date of the loan and the identification number of the instrument.

Surplus parts for musical instruments together with and including extra sets of guitar strings shall be kept in "A" Block. Guitar strings shall be purchased in the regular manner and stored in "A" Block until needed. An old set of strings must be turned in to the cellhouse Officer to draw a new set.

47. RADIO:

Radio programs are carefully selected for the enjoyment of all concerned. Protect your radio privileges by conducting yourself properly with consideration for the rights of other inmates during broadcasts.

You are issued a radio headset on the signing of a receipt for the same. Do not tamper with your radio outlets, phones, or other equipment. If they do not work properly, notify the cellhouse Officer quietly. Your headsets are of a "tamper-proof" type. Evidence of tampering with any part of your radio equipment will result in a disciplinary report.

The operator of the radio is not in the cellhouse. Do not shout any instructions, advice or abuse.

Programs are scheduled for the following hours:

Weekdays: 6:00 PM to 9:30 PM


Loud laughter, yelling, cheering or clapping will not be tolerated.

Your headset must be kept at the rear of the cell when you are out. Do not leave your headset plugged-in when you leave the cell. Headsets found plugged-in or hanging on the outlet box will be picked up.

Escape Attempts

During its years as a maximum security prison, there were 14 known attempts to escape from Alcatraz, although no successful escapes were ever recorded. One of the most violent attempts occurred in 1946 when six prisoners overpowered prison guards and were able to gain access to weapons. Since they did not have the keys needed to leave the prison, a three day stand-off occurred and the prisoners killed two guards and injured 18 others. The U.S. Marines had to be called in, and the ensuing shoot-out resulted in the deaths of three of the inmates and brought the battle to an end. The other three inmates stood trial, with two of them receiving the death penalty for their actions.

Another famous escape story is that of bank robbers Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin who inspired the 1979 movie 'Escape From Alcatraz'. The men spent months chipping through the crumbling walls of their cells with sharpened spoons. After leaving papier-mâché dummies to make it look as though they were still in bed, they managed to evade security until they reached the island shore where they constructed a raft out of raincoats and attempted to make their way across the bay to freedom. Despite an extensive search the prisoners or their bodies were never found and they were presumed drowned in the treacherous waters. However, the fact that the men were learning Spanish in the months leading up to their escape led to a theory that they had actually escaped to South America. In 2013 the San Francisco Police Department received a letter in which the author claimed to be an 83 year old John Anglin. An FBI laboratory examined the letter for fingerprints and DNA but the results were inconclusive leaving a question mark over its authenticity - and the fate of the escapees.

Closure of the prison

Despite being chosen as a prison precisely because of its island location, this was eventually to be a major contributing factor in the decision to shut down Alcatraz. The fact that all food and supplies had to be shipped in meant it had much higher operating expenses than other federal prisons at the time, and the exposure to the salty sea air had also started having an effect on the buildings, with the noticeable erosion being costly to mend and maintain. So, after nearly three decades of operation - and having housed a total of 1,576 men - Alcatraz prison was permanently closed in 1963. However the island's story doesn't end there.

Six years later, a group of around 100 Native Americans led by Mohawk activist Richard Oakes arrived and claimed the land on behalf of 'Indians of All Tribes'. They had an aim of establishing a university and a museum on the island but some members ended up leaving after the death of one their group, and the others were removed by order of President Nixon in 1971. Some of their graffiti still remains to this day. After becoming part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, the island and prison was opened to the public a year later and Alcatraz now has over 1 million visitors annually.

My visit to Alcatraz was everything I hoped it would be. Of course it has become a bit of a tourist trap over the years, but it also provides a great insight into the history of the place and allows us to see behind the myths and legends that surround 'The Rock'.

Find more info on tours here.